Friday 1 February 2019

Intelligence Gained

© Denis Fitzpatrick, 2016

I seem to play my best chess at around 1 am, after I have given up on the prospect of sleep, again, for the night. After turning and tossing around for about two hours I get up around midnight and have a shower, after a cup of coffee. Whilst I’m dressing I feel enthused, looking forward to a night of playing chess on my phone, and to a day of reading nineteenth century fiction. I have schizophrenia and thus am unable to work (despite my best efforts), receiving a federal disability pension from the generous government of Aus, allowing me to spend my time howsoever I choose. The chess games are usually short and the checkmates I win are always something that’ll make me smile in recalling them months later. These checkmates never involve using the queen, which I have swapped off earlier in the game. Instead they are a graceful, yet ruthless, combination of two or three pieces. Using only two rooks for the mate is by far my most favourite checkmate.
     A few months ago, during another sleepless night, though, my chess app, rated to be the best, began making illegal moves. This was just after it had been updated. I kept playing it though, hoping that it was just a temporary error (or rather errors.) But every game I played, it kept moving illegally, and nothing I tried to fix it worked. Forcing the app to take back a move just resulted in an illegal move elsewhere and rebooting my phone, thrice, had no impact whatsoever. So, with really no choice, I got another chess app and deleted the alleged best one on the Net.
     This chess app, rated very highly, was by far a lot dumber than its predecessor. I was playing it solidly for two hours, to give it a good work out and to gauge its character, and it only won once. It won that game only because of an error on my part. Thus, having thoroughly explored this stupid app, I was sufficiently tired out, or more to the point, disappointed, that I got back in my pyjamas and returned to bed. I fell asleep eventually, disappointed, and convinced that my sleepless wee hours of the morning would be so excruciatingly boring from now on.


After a week of playing this very tedious chess app, and winning practically every game, I decided to return to the old one. Perhaps they’d stopped its illegal moving. They had indeed updated it and the very first game with it was a thorough, resounding joy; it beat me very quickly and had not made any illegal moves. I played it several more times (the app winning every game) and not a single move was out of order. Thank God! I now had something to look forward to during my sleepless nights.
     But the app kept winning. I am an above average chess player but this obviously updated app was a thorough genius. I tried every trick that I had previously learned to beat it but still it kept winning. Maybe because I was playing it during the day and not at 1 am, my usual best time to play. Accordingly I spent about a week staying up all night, drinking far too much coffee, and took up the challenge around 1 am. But it still kept winning. Every game. Quickly.
     It was after exactly a week of putting up with this, playing at my peak time, I doubtlessly began to suspect that this updated app had some sort of bug in it. There was outrightly no way that it could keep winning; its series of wins must be a digital fluke, or an aberrant use of its algorithms. Certainly you may say, ‘Denis, haven’t you a bit high estimate of your chess abilities? Maybe just perhaps the updated app is obviously better than this estimate of your vaunted prowess.’ I don’t think so. I have friends here in Granville, western Sydney, who now will only play me if I start with a handicap - that is, by removing a pawn or a piece before the commencement of play. But even with this handicap, and sometimes with the handicap of a piece rather than a pawn, I win about ninety-five percent of the time.
     Obviously then, since I am such a good player, this app must somehow be malfunctioning. The obvious thing to do then would be to email the developer and alert them to the problem. But wording the email seemed difficult, very difficult, without appearing to them as a very sore loser who just wanted to have a good and annoying long whinge. After all, so would say the developers, just because I am repeatedly losing is obvious proof that the app is in fine working order. It is not making illegal moves and so the improved engine is having the desired result.
     After drafting a few emails to the developer, that all sounded petulant, I decided to play a few more games against the app. There was no doubt though; it won the five games in row, and, indeed, almost had me in Fool’s Mate during the fifth game. Which is why I stopped the test at five. Now, so absolutely clearly, the app was clearly cheating in a way that had gone undetected. Maybe others had experienced this phenomenon?
     This question gave me the tack to approach the developers in a sane, rational, and reasonable manner, and not as someone who can’t take losing. It was then simplicity to write to them, explaining clearly my own situation and asking them if others had written in with similar experiences to mine regarding their app. I think I did a good job. I don’t think I spent too long on the email and I don’t think it was too short either. I also most certainly expected that they will believe my assertion that I am an above average chess player and consequently quite good against even their top rated chess engine. Admittedly, I don’t have an official chess ranking, but doing so would only formalise things. In short, I expected them to seriously question whether or not an insidious bug had infected their otherwise brilliant chess app, taking my own experiences into consideration.
     Welcomingly, I received an email from the developer the following morning telling me that others had indeed written in with ‘observations’ similar to my own, and the fact of the app always winning was indeed an error. The app had, or so they explained it as simply as they could, had two of its algorithms crossed over, resulting in behaviour that had not been planned. They, the developers, had now resolved the issue and it is part of the next update.
     Naturally, I was stoked with this missive and after checking for available updates on my phone the chess app was on the list. A brief check showed that they had taken the problem in hand which made the engine ‘less unpredictable.’ I made a coffee after downloading the update, deciding to spend the next twenty-four hours in playing chess.
     It lasted for four hours though. The app was even smarter and, whilst never moving illegally, seemed to get its mates more quickly. I played for two hours straight, taking a break for a coffee for a small bit, and it seemed to always win almost as soon as I’d made a move. Not only were its mates quicker but it had done so whilst only losing pawns. One time it got checkmate without losing a piece or a pawn. I hadn’t even time to swap off my queen.
     After a further two hours I gave in and realised that the app must have only had its algorithms crossed the more. Exhausted and nigh to despair I wondered if this crossing, this bug, could spread outwards. Could it infect other apps? Could it somehow infect my whole phone? The Net? Was this app, basically, an unseen Armageddon? I turned off the phone for a while, hoping the problem would solve itself.
     Idly checking my emails later that evening, and deliberately ignoring the app, I received another email from the developer telling me to entirely delete their chess app. The original oversight in its encoding had led to it becoming structurally unsound and was no longer fit for commercial use. They offered a full refund after the app was deleted.
     Did I want to delete the app though? Sure, it had proved very problematic, but imagine what I could learn from it. Perhaps with sufficient, in-depth study I could learn countless sets of original chess combinations. Maybe in losing to the app I was in fact gaining fundamental insights, insights that would play me well in similar circumstances.
     Well, I did in fact end up deleting the app. After all it was corrupt and its marvellous winning streak was the result of error, of coding that had been unintended. Anyway, and who knows, maybe its super smart artificial intelligence would have ‘crossed algorithms’ with one of my other apps, leading to a whole lot of digital confusion. I really don’t want to go down in history as the madman who enslaved humanity to machines.
     That all being fine and dandy, I was left without a good chess app. I had briefly tried most of the others on offer and so I knew from experience that they were none too smart. Most of them were actually very dumb. But what choice did I have? I have all of this free time and chess is the only thing, apart from reading, that makes life seem liveable. But seeing that it’s chess that takes up most of my time I once again explored the chess apps offered from my phone.
     I have since tried all of the other chess apps available and they are all, mostly, easy to beat. The other ones just take a bit of effort to conquer. Now what was I going to do?
     I answered myself almost instantly: I should join a chess academy, with a view to compete. Joyfully, almost feeling resurrected, I searched the Net for chess academies in Sydney. There is one in Surrey Hills, The Sydney Chess Academy, which has received a four stars out of five rating from fifty-two reviews. Their own website is well put together, with a brief resume of their official grandmasters. It looks ideal. I’ll email them now, and I’ll be back after my first club win.


Like I said, here I am again, after my first club win. Or rather, wins. It’s been fourteen months since I signed up with The Sydney Chess Academy and I won three out of five of my first pro games, all played on the same night. I was expecting to win them all, being graded highly at the Academy, but first night nerves eventually took their toll. Still, I’m glad I have now found where I can really play chess. If life were only that simple for everybody.


If you have been enjoying Fitzpatrick's stories here you may also enjoy his short story collections, and other books, available online as both Kindle books and paperbacks (go to Other ebook and paperback options are available at Fitzpatrick has also had a collection of short stories, Aberrant Selected, published by Waldorf Publishing, available on Amazon.